Mental Health Vaccinations for Kids
June 19, 2018 5:47 PM   Subscribe

Ok, so there's no depression vaccine. But help me with some strategies to ward off mental health issues in my kids.

I just started a job working with college-age students, and I'm incredibly upset at how poor their mental health seems on a whole. (This isn't just a selective bias -- I see it across a range of kids of different backgrounds/academic abilities/socio-economic statuses, etc.) I have kids who are very young. I'm terrified for them! I know there are a zillion factors that contribute to poor mental health (I'm thinking anxiety and depression in particular) and I'm now trained to see the signs. But is there research on what parents can do to help innoculate our kids?

For context, I have a happy home (I think) and a strong marriage. I spend lots of time with my kids. I give them lots of love, and am trying to give them responsibility too (though I probably still pick up too much after them.) They are very young now, but I'm committed to not pressuring them. I do not yell, scream or hit them, and they have not (yet) experienced any major hardship or loss. I try not to spoil them, and yet I probably spend way too much on fresh cut mango. We have a strong bond. I have struggled with post-partum depression and general anxiety, but I mostly have it under control; I don't know how much of this they have been aware of. My partner is a happy-go-lucky person, so there are good genes there.

I think I have the basics then. But is there anything more as they grow up I should be thinking of? Books that explain this? Should I encourage sports? Block their access to their internet/social media? Let them do whatever they want? Send them to summer camp outdoors? Teach them meditation young? Is there research on this?

TLDR: Is there anything I should be doing now to help my kids ward off mental health issues in the future?
posted by heavenknows to Human Relations (40 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Block their access to their internet/social media?

This. If my experience is any guide, few things negatively affect kids’ mental health as much as unfettered social media access. A number of kids close to me have struggled with the “fear of missing out” and with understanding that a carefully cultivated social media presence doesn’t accurately represent a person’s true personality. A total ban might not be realistic for everyone, but I personally don’t think it’s untenable, and I do think it’s helpful in promoting good mental health.
posted by cheapskatebay at 6:00 PM on June 19, 2018 [13 favorites]

As someone who was a kid with major anxiety and depression before I was an adult with it. I think talking about how it isn't someone *wrong* with them is super key. If I knew that medication and therapy was an ok part of life (like an inhaler!) I would have reached out earlier. Good on you for being so open to this topic with your kiddos!
posted by msfrizzle at 6:01 PM on June 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

Data point: finishing my clinical psychology master's plus licensure currently.

Here's a bit of a sciency response, in addition to the above.

Mental health disorders arise off of what is called the diathesis-stress model. While this is not the only way of thinking of disorders, it is one of the most evidence based. Essentially, this theory indicates that disorders arise from the combination of genes interacting with environmental stressors, and this can be very different and variable for people even with very similar patterns. So in short, there is only so much you can control. It is the exposure to environmental stress that activates the gene (and in some cases it can occur in reverse as in epigenetics). I wish there were such a magic bullet as an inoculation, but it's drastically different and "stress" can mean anything from how parents treat their kids to whether or not they were born premature. It's wild, really.

You talk about family environment, but that is only one environmental stressor. Others have been linked with other disorders - everything from SES, urban/rural environment, activity/exercise levels, expressed emotion, smoking/diet, exposure to certain things, etc. Even if you somehow manage to block everything, genes will still do what they please. It's complicated, and it's what makes this stuff so fascinating and makes us who we are. There are plenty of twin studies demonstrating this and it is not nature versus nurture, it's both.

With that said, if you focus on good communication, a warm and encouraging environment (but not hovering) and empower those kids to make good choices, understand balance, have healthy relationships and independent interests, you are supporting them and pointing them on the right path. Serve as a resource and confidant.
posted by floweredfish at 6:03 PM on June 19, 2018 [46 favorites]

Good nutrition, good sleep habits, the habit of walking, riding a bike, and otherwise using one's body. I have family members with anxiety, OCD, depression, Bi-polar, alcoholism. Those of use who eat healthy, sleep well and have a regular schedule, and exercise, are definitely mentally healthier.

Recognizing one's own and others' mood and behavior. Uncle Joe is angry, yes, that's why he's blahblahing. Nana is frustrated that some guests are so late and the meal will be less perfect than usual, but just wait, she'll be so good to them when they get here because she gets over things.

Allow them to experience difficult things. Funerals, a sick pet who will be euthanized, Great Aunt Betty with dementia who thinks they are her siblings. They will learn compassion and kindness and how to cop with unpleasant feelngs. In my family, the examples for coping were unhealthy, setting an example of feeling very sad when someone dies, and coping, will help.
posted by theora55 at 6:15 PM on June 19, 2018 [12 favorites]

genes will still do what they please

I cannot second this strongly enough. What concerns me about your question is you're saying you understand youth mental health, yet think somehow parents can stop mental health issues from arising in their children.Kids with mental health issues did not have parents who failed them.

TLDR: Is there anything I should be doing now to help my kids ward off mental health issues in the future?

You can 100% fully understand that parents can't ward off kid's mental health issues, and it's incredibly insulting to parents of kids who struggle, because you're implying that those parents did something wrong.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 6:18 PM on June 19, 2018 [24 favorites]

I had a lovely childhood with loving, wonderfully supportive parents. When I hit puberty my brain chemistry went off the rails and I became withdrawn and horribly depressed for years. I wish my parents had gotten me medication, but that wasn't really a thing in the mid 1990s like it is today. Just be observant and don't be afraid to take the kid to the doctor, even if they are resistant. Be open about depression being a thing that is common and fixable. Im not saying to give them meds against their will, but make every option available with full education.
posted by gatorae at 6:27 PM on June 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Just an update -- I tried (and obviously failed) in the question to say that I totally understand there are a zillion factors to this so I'm not saying at all that I can "innoculate" them -- it was the only word I could think of. The science answers about factors is exactly what I am looking for (though personal data are helpful as well), but I also want to focus on what I can do to help. Obviously I cannot control everything, but surely I can try to control something, even if it's very little.
posted by heavenknows at 6:31 PM on June 19, 2018

I have anxiety, despite coming from a home very much like the one you describe.

I don’t think the answer is to do anything specific as you raise your kids, but rather to make sure they feel safe discussing their feelings and mental health with you at all times. The tenor of your question makes it seem like having a child with anxiety or depression would be The Worst Thing Ever. While no one wants either of those issues, they are incredibly commonplace. You’ll do better to make sure your kids know mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of than to obsess over preventing them.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:32 PM on June 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

And oh God, I totally didn't meant to imply that anyone with kids who mentally struggle did anything wrong at all! I am honest about my own struggles and I think my parents did great, and the things they might have not done as well they even did those out of love. For example, they were big on the "you are awesome! you are special! here's a sticker!" which was great advice then but we now know isn't the best way to boost your kids' growth mindset.

I'm really sorry if the question came out as insulting! I think I just did a poor job of asking it if it does.
posted by heavenknows at 6:34 PM on June 19, 2018

I am going to get in trouble for thread-sitting, but no I don't think mental health issues are the Worst Thing Ever, esp. as I say I have them myself and still have a happy home. But for some of the kids I see they ARE the worst thing ever, with panic attacks so bad we have to call ambulances for them and suicidal thoughts. And suicide would be the worst thing ever for me as a parent. Even just advice like "see the signs, take them to a doctor even if they don't want to go" is what I mean by "helping them ward off mental health issues."
posted by heavenknows at 6:39 PM on June 19, 2018

I think what you might be meaning is not inoculation, but resilience factors. As in, how can you help these kids to develop resilience mechanisms so that they will be less likely to develop these issues.

To further complicate things, even if someone is genetically predisposed to developing depression and they end up being in the right environment to develop it, they still may never do so depending on what resilience factors they have accumulated. These can be things like talking through problems, relieving stress/pressure through exercise/healthy coping mechanisms, good self-esteem, healthy diet, etc. etc.

Basically the short of it all is: be compassionate towards these kids and be there as social support. Promote healthy coping mechanisms and help them make good choices through being aware of their options and consequences.
posted by floweredfish at 6:45 PM on June 19, 2018 [19 favorites]

I hesitate to say this because I only ever seem to hear it said to mothers as intrusive and oppressive self-esteem policing. I know that when you say "good genes" it's probably a joke as well as a figure of speech, and you have every right to be self-deprecating. but: you might try to not talk in terms of 'good genes' and 'bad genes'. anxiety and depression, especially, are such common things. it goes along with the idea that if you've ever been anxious and depressed, if your kids are mentally unwell at any point, it'll be your fault for being a carrier in some way. and it fucks a kid up to feel like they'd be letting a good parent down somehow by taking after them.

I think in the long run the best way to treat mental health in the family is to de-dramatize it and lead by example. it is easy to tell kids to come to you if they ever feel whatever way, but hard for them to do it if they've never seen it done. so while it is bad to tell young kids scary true things that might make feel parentified/unsafe, I think it's good to eventually talk about your mood management the way you might talk about migraines if you had them. and especially good when they're older to mention that you had post-partum depression, the way you might tell them that you breastfed or had an epidural, or whatever. if they don't feel right at some point, the ideal would be for them to think I should talk to mom about this, she understands rather than I can't talk to mom, she tried so hard and she'll think it's her fault.

you clearly aren't doing anything to harm them. the only thing is to make sure they know what to do in case they start feeling a certain way. same as you prepare them for what to do if they get separated from you in a crowd, only be more low-key and gradual about it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:46 PM on June 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

The internet has been bad for my mental health. The internet has been amazing for my mental health. What I really wish had happened with my internet usage as a teenager is that my parents had actually talked with me about what I was doing and like... taken seriously that I had real legit internet-based hobbies and I was interacting with real people through those hobbies and that this had both good and bad parts, the same as anything else. Dismissing things I cared about as unimportant made me even more determined to keep them separate from my parents. I think that can happen just as much with anything allegedly IRL.

Aside from that kind of thing--CBT kind of techniques are not things you only need to learn once you have a mental illness that's taken your life completely off the rails. I don't know about the best ways to teach them to kids, but I do 100% think they should be taught to kids, just across the board. I don't think it would be the worst thing, if you can swing it, to have counseling just be a regular part of life even when things are going okay. I think physical activity is very important but don't push organized sports if it doesn't make the kid happy. Don't push social stuff in general if it doesn't make them happy. Make sure generally that they know they can say no to things.

All of this in general, basically, I'm looking at it from the perspective not of "prevent the mental health problem" but "make it easier to manage even if they have them and make them easy to identify early". In general: open communication, coping skills, and agency.
posted by Sequence at 6:47 PM on June 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

Is there anything I could be doing now to help my kids ward off mental health issues in the future?

Yeah, this:

Have a happy home and a strong marriage. Spend lots of time with your kids. Give them lots of love, and try to give them responsibility too. Be committed to not pressuring them. Do not yell, scream or hit them. Try not to spoil them, and maybe spend way too much on fresh cut mango. Have a strong bond.

You sound like you're doing an AMAZING job. Breathe.
posted by kate4914 at 6:48 PM on June 19, 2018 [6 favorites]

i think your heart is in the right place, and you're worried about your kids. but to agree with the advice above - there are a million things that can mess with your kids that you will have absolutely no control over. the way they see themselves in comparison to their peers, the way other kids treat them, the messages their brains choose to absorb from media - you can have a hand in guiding them toward better conclusions regarding themselves, but at the end of the day, they'll make their own decisions. you giving them a strong background and belief in theirselves is paramount, but chemistry does play a role. just do the best you can.

i will tell you something that would have helped me a lot when i was younger, and may have tempered some of my anxiety as a grownup: when you're talking to your kids, believe them when they tell you something, and listen when they tell you they don't want something. if your kid tries something and it's not for them, don't tell them to suffer through it. self-esteem takes a major hit when you suck at something and your parents make you continue because they paid money for it. there's the no-thank-you try and there's the constant feeling like you suck. if your kid tells you they feel bad about themselves, don't tell them it'll pass. ask them why. tell them you're always there, and set aside time to focus when you're talking to them. believe them when they say they're being bullied. believe them when they say there's something that creeps them out (even/especially if it's a fucking family member). if you're gonna have a reaction to something, try and think how you would have felt in that place, and base it on that. screwing up is how you learn - your parent screaming at you for it is how you become super afraid of fucking up, and really bad things can come from that. just sayin'.
posted by koroshiya at 7:04 PM on June 19, 2018 [11 favorites]

I love this question! Firstly, you must be way ahead of the game to be asking it. I have a lot of thoughts as someone with mental health issues — without kids — but who can see a lot of areas that my own parents could have, ehhh, improved in :)

- Model diverse, healthy, happy friendships
- Spend time with your own friends — have them over for dinner, bring them along on outings with the kids, etc
- Make it a priority to foster your own social network, show your kids how to do that
- Be transparent about your own challenges with mental health, but don't overdo it. More like, show that it's a priority to you to eat well, exercise, go to therapy, etc (or whatever helps your own anxiety)
- Make sure to manage your own anxiety well! Kids are such sponges and can soak up untreated anxiety in their parents
- Reject isolationism, embrace human connection
- Focus on authenticity, not appearances
- Celebrate diversity - in bodies, cultures, backgrounds, ways of thinking
- Relish life - travel, enjoy good food, dance, make art, experience art
- Ask your kids how they feel about doing something instead of just making them do it (i.e extracurricular activities). Take their no's seriously (it sounds like you would)
- Be transparent about your own feelings without dumping them on your kids. Show them how to experience difficult feelings — anger, sadness, grief.
- Teach them that it's ok not to be happy all the time. Show them that feelings are bearable and temporary.
- Show them how to be angry - don't hide arguments with your partner. Instead model healthy approaches to communicating while angry. Show them that being angry doesn't mean a relationship is doomed.
- Accept their own anger at you. Show them they can be angry at you and that you will accept it, process it, change your own behavior and/or apologize if that's appropriate, and still love them.
- Show them that you can be angry at them, and that you still love them. Teach them how to process someone being angry with them (it's temporary, there is a bedrock of love there, it's not a judgment of who they are as a person)
- Help your kids develop healthy, strong relationships with adults — family members, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, godparents, neighbors. Make sure they have another set of trusted, vetted adults besides you they could confide in if they need to.
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 7:04 PM on June 19, 2018 [28 favorites]

I really liked reading Aliki's Feelings with my kids. It was great practice in identifying emotions and a reassurance that it's OK to talk about them.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:05 PM on June 19, 2018

Help them establish strong exercise habits. Exercise helps with both anxiety and depression, and obviously has benefits regardless. I think I remember reading that fairly long-duration, high-intensity exercise is best.
posted by pinochiette at 7:14 PM on June 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes to building resilience and a "growth mindset". Teach them that failure is normal and a part of the learning process, and that skills and knowledge can be developed through hard work. E.g. don't tell them they are "good at math" or "have a natural artistic talent" but rather praise effort and encourage them to try new things they aren't immediately "good" at.

And speaking from personal experience, more opportunities for socialization outside of school are super critical. For me, I got this through the internet and I would say online fandom WAS my inoculation against depression, possibly even that it saved my life. But it's probably better for those types of interactions to happen in person. For religious families this is often church; if you are not religious it can take more effort to find a community that isn't associated with school but I think the effort is worth it. School socialization can be rough sometimes and I think kids need an escape.
posted by capricorn at 7:40 PM on June 19, 2018 [6 favorites]

Make sure they feel they can come to you if they're being bullied at school. Have their back and remove them from dangerous situations. Don't pressure them to see/understand the other person's side of things or make them feel that it's their responsibility to stand up to the their tormentors, nor make them feel that it's a weakness if they can't figure out a way of dealing with it on their own.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:51 PM on June 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is one of those things where what you CAN do is help them build a toolbox. There's no such thing as a trouble-free life, because there's always going to be hard things both internal and external, but knowing how to deal with the anticipated low-hanging fruit - work/school stress, performance anxiety, shitty people, shitty authorities, emergencies, hormonal loop-de-loops, grief/loss/losing, how to fuck up gracefully etc - make the difference between a helpless kid and a resourceful one. When you give them vocabulary and strategies, you're giving them tools.

It's a thing you have to live with them every day. And it's a thing you have to get yourself trained to deliver, whether that's by going to therapy yourself or books or videos or all of the above (tip: it's really all of the above).

Just from watching all this go on for years, I kind of think one of the most useful things you can do for your younger kids is put them in a well-regarded kid-oriented martial arts program. It teaches practice and discipline, gets them exercise, forces them to learn how to handle failure, usually mixes them with kids from outside school, and the instructors tend to be excellent leaders and leader-trainers. You have to talk to them and teach them all the time too, but this does seem to be a common denominator among resourceful kids.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:56 PM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

- Take care of yourself, especially emotionally. Addressing your own emotional stuff, keeping peace with your inner life, see a therapist if that'd help. You can't give what you don't have, so make sure you are mentally healthy. When you are, you're a lot less likely to inadvertently traumatize them via your projections. You'd also be modelling that a) you take responsibility for your own well being, and b) there's no shame in tending to one's needs as they arise, even if the needs come with mental health labels.

- Model healthy boundaries between you and husband and you and kids and you and others. There should be boundaries between the kids as well-- don't punish johnny because susan didn't do her homework, etc.

- Be willing to apologize when you make a mistake. Show them you can be vulnerable and that you will take care of yourself the way you will take care of them.

- Also, major +1 on the suggestion upthread-- establish healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise habits. Establish routines. Use bodies (and don't body shame, ever). Let their creativity roam.

Good luck. I have an immense amount of respect for you for asking this question.
posted by redwaterman at 8:02 PM on June 19, 2018 [6 favorites]

I guess for little kids I'd start with "feelings: it's ok to have them!" and "stress: here's how to deal with it!" type materials. And a family doctor who is clued into mental health issues.
Then as the kids get a bit older, making sure they know about helplines, places, people, resources they can seek out if they're having trouble and for some reason don't want to talk to you about it first.
Anyway, I think family doctor might be the first line of defense so someone that both you and your child like and can talk to. I hated my family doctor. She was more interested in telling us bible stories than asking if I had any trouble sleeping or was having difficulty managing stress. If the family doctor is terrible that could be like the first 18 years with maybe an undiscovered issue.
posted by sacchan at 8:32 PM on June 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Make sure your own mental health needs are treated. It would have been good for me if I had seen that modeled by my parent who has the same mental health problems that I have.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:35 PM on June 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

There is some good research on the factors that contribute to resiliency in children.
Here is an overview from the Harvard University Center for Developing Child.
and here is more information from the APA on resiliency written for adults but it show you the attitudes that you would want to cultivate in your children as well.
posted by metahawk at 10:39 PM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Be a role model for your kids to see what healthy behavior, boundaries, relationships, problem-solving, dealing with and validating emotions, working through tough times or tasks, and getting help for yourself can look like, as listed in many responses above. Had I seen more of this growing up, I wouldn't have had to learn so much from the Green here later in life. As a bonus, to consciously think about which areas you want to model for them and what you think a good way to do that would be will help you in your own life, even if the effect on your kids is limited.

Thank you for asking this question; I'm in a similar situation and grateful for the responses and thinking prompt.
posted by meijusa at 10:50 PM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Re: Social media: I know that many people caution parents to limit it, but I will say that especially if your children end up being "different", somehow--if they're queer, or mentally ill, or disabled, for example, or even if you live in an area that goes hard for sports and your kids aren't sporty--social media and the internet can be a literal lifesaver, allowing kids who don't fit in locally to find support and community that they aren't able to find in their offline life. I'm not exaggerating when I say that teen me would've killed myself without the support of my internet friends, and while I think that social media has had both positives and negatives for my (queer, mentally ill) teenage child, the positives of it have far outweighed the negatives.

The other thing that I would suggest is to look at how you worded this question, and the responses that you got. I know that you've clarified, and I believe that you don't think that depression/anxiety/etc are the Worst Ever, and that you don't feel that people who are mentally ill have done something wrong--but the original post clearly implied, to me and others, that you do. If your children are struggling with mental health, that sort of misstep is the sort of thing that they'll notice and internalize. My mother has, at times, been very intentionally hurtful to me about my mental health, but it's the times that she wasn't trying to be hurtful that I feel have been the most damaging. I know that it feels like you're being tone policed, but in my opinion, one of the ways to make yourself an ally--both to your kids and to other people who struggle with mental illness--is to aggressively tone police yourself, and, if relevant, your partner. I know several families in which one partner goes out of their way to be accepting and supportive, and it's pretty much all destroyed because the other partner says thoughtless or hurtful things. It's hard to trust someone when they say all the right things, but their partner, the person they're closest to, doesn't seem to care.

Finally, I would suggest some careful consideration about the way that you're responding to some things. I understand that there may be institutional policies at play with regards to calling ambulances, etc, but for your children, hopefully there's more nuance. Suicidal ideation is, in my experience, a very common symptom in depressive people, and many of those people don't have any particular plan or even desire to kill themself--it just keeps coming up in their brain. Reacting calmly and nonjudgmentally to this sort of disclosure can be the difference between a kid who talks to you about it and a kid who knows to shut up about it, because their parents always super overreact. You can always escalate your displayed concern--if there's a recurring problem, if they have a plan to kill themself, even if you just walk away and go, wait, that's *super* fucked up. But you can't dial back that initial reaction, so consider it carefully.
posted by mishafletch at 11:50 PM on June 19, 2018 [6 favorites]

Great question. As a parent who struggles with some mental health issues, I think I contributed to (but did not create) my kid's own eventual struggles. Partly that was the result of an anxious parenting style because of my own anxiety. Partly that was the result of not knowing how to deal with feelings, my own or anyone else's. I did not know that emotional regulation was a thing, for example, that can affect attachment. One major factor was that my partner and I could not agree on lots of parenting issues (so we were inconsistent with our kid, which was problematic for our relationship as well as our parenting). Healthy parenting and adulthood had never been modelled for me so I honestly had no idea how to be the parent my kid needed. I think the biggest problem was having grown up in an alcoholic household with no healthy boundaries. Today I am a lot healthier and my adult kid is doing well. I am grateful for both those things but wish I had discovered Al-Anon and some other parenting resources much earlier in my life. Good luck, OP! Sounds like you are doing well.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:46 AM on June 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have not read all the responses so I might be repeating, but please, please, treat your children as children. Not adults. Be super careful about not letting the stress in your life spill over into theirs at the time when they neither have solutions to your problems, nor the toolbox to identify them as your problems and not theirs. Anxiety and stress are contagious and their effects can be debilitating long-term. I love my parents but MAN they had boundary issues when it came to managing their own well-being. My mom still doesn't get why I turned out so anxious and everyone's-problem-is-my-problem-y.
posted by Nieshka at 3:03 AM on June 20, 2018

In response to the suggestion of restricting access to the internet or social media.
I was bullied by every boy at my tiny high school and the girls tended to stay away from me to avoid that. If I didn’t have the internet for the last few years of high school I wouldn’t have had a single friend or anywhere to turn.
posted by shesbenevolent at 3:42 AM on June 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the clarification. I'm a teacher at a therapeutic high school for kids with mental health issues, and my own kids have had some issues, so while I always have a ton to learn, I do have a load of experience. I think you've gotten a lot of wonderful advice about good parenting in general but not much specific to mental illness, which like I said before, is going to happen even if you're the best and most perfect family in the world. So, things that are generally good for mental health:

1. Like you saw with the way you worded this question and how you had to jump back in and blame your parents for their mistakes, you need to be very careful with your words. Seriously.

2. There are some connections between exercise and mental health, so it's a very good idea to introduce your kids to many healthy lifestyle choices like hiking, biking, long and adventurous walks, so they will always have outlets because everyone needs----

3. A toolbox of strategies. You can absolutely verbalize that you're feeling a bit sluggish (or whatever) and need to get outside and see some trees to feel better. Model and label that behavior. Don't go overboard, but make the connection that a 5 minute meditation or a quick sun salutation (and yeah, teach them meditation and yoga) are going to help you feel good.

4. NORMALIZE mental health issues. Teach them they're like any other physical problem and just like sometimes we get colds and do x, y and z to feel better, sometimes our brains feel off and we do meditation and walks to feel better. But focus on there's nothing wrong with it, it can be dealt with, and the severity can go away. Just like maybe the first time you get a cut it's scary, the first time you feel anxious is scary. And just like you'll help them when they get a cold, you'll help them get better when they feel sad or scared, there are doctors who will help when needed and there's nothing wrong with that.

5. My last suggestion is tricky to implement, but listen to them and respect them when they indicate they don't want to do something. Not wanting to go to a party may be some social anxiety and forcing them sends the message you do not respect what they say. Avoiding piano practice may be because sitting soclosetothepianoteacher causes them fear. I see a lot of parents who have their kids "tough out" stressors when it's clear the kid is genuinely panicking. Avoid that.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:20 AM on June 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

Good question. Here's a few more suggestions, based on my experience as a professor, seeing so many young adults struggling with mental health issues, and based on books I've read.[*] YMMV of course.

[*] Obviously with this and all of my advice I'm not trying to say that all or even most of people's mental health issues are their parents fault or are due to specific early experiences. But you asked for advice about what things you might be able to control, and these are the things that I think you can control that may have some effect.

1. Let them struggle, and let them fail. I think this is super important, but rather counterintuitive and easy to mess up. So many of my students suffer from intense anxiety, and one the roots of their anxiety is that they've never really experienced the consequences of even minor failures or mild struggles. So for them a B+ is a tragedy that they are massively ill-equipped to deal with. Much of the research on anxiety suggests that the way to deal with it is not to avoid the thing causing the anxiety, but rather to face it in a supportive and controlled way. So as a parent what you can do is let your child struggle, let them fail, and don't shield them from the consequences of that struggle and that failure. They will learn that they are strong enough to handle failure, and that failing is never as bad as they thought it would be.

Note: that doesn't mean that you don't support your kids through difficult times. You need to support them! But the way to support them is by giving them someone to talk through their feelings, strategising with them (not at them) what to do, talking about what they learned from difficult situations, giving them perspective, sharing similar stories, telling them that you're confident that they can handle it, etc. You should do those things. You should not swoop in and handle things for them unless the problems are major and your children have tried everything reasonable they could do on their own. So you should intervene if they are getting abused or severely bullied or are at risk of permanent damage. You should not intervene in more minor ways: do not get teachers to change your kid's grade (even if you think the grading was unfair). Do not stop your kid from doing things that are slightly dangerous (even if you think they might get hurt). Do not stop them from dating or being friends with somebody (even if you don't entirely like that person). Do not call parents of kids who your kid is having a fight with (even if you think their kid is in the wrong). Life is often unfair and hard, but kids with resilience are kids who have learned through experience that they have the emotional strength to handle that unfairness.

2. Set them up with healthy habits. Other people have said this, but I think it's huge and worth repeating. Prioritise sleep, good food, exercise, and social support over almost anything else. Even grades. If they have those things, "good enough" grades will follow. If they have good grades but not those things, the grades are built on a foundation of sand, and your child will crash and burn when they get out from under your thumb.

3.Emphasise substance, not appearances. What I mean by this is that it should be very clear to your children that you love them and support them and like them even if they aren't "performing" to your standards or the standards of your community. I think our society massively overemphasises the importance of grades and talents, and it is often to the detriment of our mental health. Your children should know at a gut level that as long as they are moral, good people, whatever they choose to be is genuinely all right with you. The way to communicate this to them -- besides saying it all of the time -- is to back up the words with actions. Don't freak out if they get a poor grade. Emphasise effort over achievement. Ask questions about if they liked things, what they found challenging, what they found fun, if they had new ideas, how they feel; don't ask what score they got or what place they were in or who they beat. (A friend of mine doesn't even look at her children's grades, which I think is amazingly sane although I'm not sure I'd be able to take it that far). If you're talking about future careers, don't limit the options to just a few acceptable "professional" choices -- include things like artist, or electrician, or homemaker, or whatever. Take your children's ideas about who they are and who they want to be seriously and engage with them as they are. Don't assume that their statements about themselves are inaccurate or just a phase or immature.

4. Make sure they have balance in their lives. I think this question of social media usage is just part of a large question of balance, and I think the answer to both is the same: a little is fine, a lot is not. Forbidding things entirely is a recipe for setting your child up to not be able to handle those things as soon as they're on their own. Allowing them in reasonable amounts lets them build the tools to handle them safely. My kids are still quite young, but we allow them iPad access for videos and games on the order of half an hour to an hour a day: enough that it's not a mystery to them, they don't get obsessed, and they get the positive benefits -- they've learned a lot from the games, and their imaginative play has been really enriched by watching shows like Peg+Cat or Octonauts. So they have some screen time, but it's still restricted enough that I haven't seen many bad effects: they are still learning to entertain themselves, they still spend most of their time moving and playing with real things, etc. This idea of balance applies beyond social media though. My personal guideline with my kids is to try to make sure that every day they: (a) sleep enough; (b) eat reasonably well; (c) move their bodies; (d) spend time outside; (e) do something creative; (f) do something hard; (g) read something; (h) do something with other people; (i) do something purely for fun. A life spent like that, I think, is a pretty good life.

5. Give them lots of practice building social skills. One of the factors that best predicts mental health is social support. The causal arrow probably goes both ways, but it does mean that giving your kid every chance to build social skills with a variety of people is one of the best things you can do as a parent. I say this as a parent of a kid who is on the spectrum. Even if it's hard -- especially if it's hard -- these skills are super important to learn. How do you help your kid learn them? Expose them to a variety of people from many different walks of life. Talk through social situations with them, both before and after -- make them get in the habit of trying to figure out what other people were thinking or feeling or wanting. Especially if your kid struggles or is a social weirdo, celebrate even small successes and don't judge the friends they have. Don't insist that they be friends with the popular kids or that they do the "cool" thing. (But don't worry if they do!) At the same time, model that it's okay to be a weirdo -- that you are confident they are a worthy and valuable person even if they are socially struggling -- so they don't internalise that something is wrong with them.

6. Give them real responsibility to others. I think kids are like adults. Just as adults often struggle with unemployment because they lack a sense of purpose or a sense that they are contributing, children without real responsibilities also lack a sense that they make valuable contributions. They might complain at chores, but I think chores give kids a feeling that they are useful, and that they matter, in a way that achieving purely "for themselves" doesn't. From this feeling grows true self-esteem.

As I said, great question. I'm sure you'll do awesomely if you're already thinking about this.
posted by forza at 4:58 AM on June 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

Foster a hobby that each kid can master (but maybe not high-level "skinny sports" like ballet which can have a culture of body image issues, nor head-impact sports like football). But a kid who is working hard to get a taekwondo belt has a source of self-esteem and an outlet.

Make it easy for your kids to have strong close friendships with kids whose family values work for you (sleepovers and unstructured playtime are a great way to build close friendships)

Monitor your kids' exposure to adult men who could abuse them. Family friends, coaches, etc. Teach the kids to report weirdness ("he tickles me") and make sure little kids know which body parts are private. Teach them they get to consent to touch and role play how they could say no.

Praise their effort, not their inherent qualities ("wow that must have been a lot of work! good for you for sticking with it!" versus "you're so smart!") (you mentioned this briefly so you probably know this, research Carol Dweck for more info).

Get lots of exercise and healthy exposure to sun, dirt and animals.

Make sure they know it's ok if they're queer, or nonconformist in some other way.

Cuddle your kids and spend alone time with them when not making eye contact (like longish drives, painting a fence together, cooking together, walking the dog in the woods). If things are bothering them, they may be more likely to discuss them with you if they routinely get low-pressure comfortable alone time with you. And lack of eye contact sometimes helps people feel more comfortable bringing up sensitive issues.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:43 AM on June 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

These are incredibly helpful, thank you so much! I apologize again if I offended anyone. I DO think however that parents can have some effect on helping their kids cope with mental health issues (in fact, I think about half the mental health questions I read on metafilter discuss the effect of childhood difficulties/parents on their mental health situation).

Obviously mental health issues are not the worst thing ever, and I agree I need to normalize it, but I do think that if people who are depressed could have previously developed the tools to avoid it spiralling out of control they would. Thinking back, knowing about CBT and mindfulness as a teenager struggling with the normal ups and downs of life would have been more helpful than having to learn it at the time of a crisis in my life. But there's no way in the world my parents would have known that. So that's why I am asking preemptively.

The internet responses were particularly helpful -- I had never thought about how the internet could be a savior for struggling kids and I'm grateful for that!
posted by heavenknows at 7:10 AM on June 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Several of my close family members, including my mother, had serious mental illnesses- schizophrenia, bipolar disorder.

My kids are in their forties now. When they were young teens I read a bunch of research on genetics and mental illness and decided I needed to warn them. They only knew my mother, not my uncle or my cousin. I explained some of my mother's symptoms, I urged them if they ever starting having any of those symptoms (hearing voices, paranoid delusions, visual hallucinations, etc.) to get help. My reasoning was that if they could recognize the symptoms as such they might have a better chance of getting help. I know this is very simplistic, but I was talking with kids. I also told them that we do not know what effects marijuana and other mind-altering substances have on growing brains and bodies so they would do better to wait until they were full-grown to try them -that kinda sorta worked, but not totally. And I told them that I had a theory that some of those substances might precipitate mental illness in someone who already had a genetic predisposition.

One of my sons had a bad experience with some psychedelic in his first year of college. It led him to decided to completely avoid intoxicants of all kinds. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke pot, doesn't do any recreational anything.
posted by mareli at 8:45 AM on June 20, 2018

You know the signs but make sure THEY know the signs of common mental disorders like depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia, and ADD. In addition, these disorders often manifest differently for women and men, so present information on that as well. I know this is true for depression and ADD, though I'm not sure about the others. The ADD symptoms more common in women aren't the one we typically think of as ADD (less tendency toward hyperactivity, for example), and depression manifests more as anger issues in men than the sadness we typically think of.
posted by unannihilated at 9:14 AM on June 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Something I was reminded of by a friend talking about some bullying her daughter was experiencing: we tend to teach kids about "if this happens to YOU" but I think kids and their weird empathy and fairness wiring (totally developmentally appropriate but still often strangely experienced and expressed) also need to hear "or a friend/someone nearby", which helps reinforce early on that we all have to look out for each other, but also not to put up with things yourself that you wouldn't expect a friend to put up with* either.

*Also, kids keep secrets together extremely well, too well. The more kids in on any given secret who've been taught the difference between major and minor issues and appropriate pathways to trusted adults to obtain help, the better.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:20 AM on June 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Give them avenues to meet adults worth trusting. Just as your partner can't be the only adult in your life, as your kids get older they will want non-parent adults to confide in. If they don't meet them through you, who knows who they'll be or what their intentions are. I sought out lots of fairly inappropriate father figures in my teens; it all worked out really well for me, but in retrospect that was not guaranteed or even all that likely.
posted by potrzebie at 12:07 PM on June 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Teach them about self compassion and model it yourself
posted by lifethatihavenotlivedyet at 5:42 PM on June 20, 2018

Set an example of articulating your emotions and reasons for doing things. Help them learn to recognize, articulate, and actively manage their own emotions. Teach them that they can choose how to respond to their emotions, and that if they feel sad/angry/etc they can do something about that. Lots of people don't understand that emotions don't have to be the be-all-end-all. Emotions are a instinct, and one that we can choose how to respond to. Sometimes that response includes taking medication and getting counseling and that's OK. Roleplay scenarios, ask them 'what if X', help them make a game plan for how to handle feeling sad or mad just like you would for talking to a stranger or making friends, etc.

Tell them and then demonstrate that you are a safe person to tell hard, complicated things and ask hard, complicated questions. I was able to tell my parents I was suicidal because they had demonstrated repeatedly that they listened to me, respected me, and were in my corner. They consistently made time for me and my siblings.

Be honest about your own struggles. My parents were upfront about a family history of depression and addiction and what we should watch for. They normalized self-care, physical and mental, for us kids by treating it as part of a routine. We brushed teeth, ate meals, played, talked about how we were feeling. We had books about dinosaurs on the shelf next to books about depression. It was something we all did as a family, just like hiking or church or going to the pool. When I hit really rough patches, I have that training and example to draw on.

Definitely look up how to talk to kids about mental health. Kids' growing brains mean they can understand things very differently, and there's books out there about how to phrase things appropriately and what concepts kids can or can't really understand at various ages.

TL;DR Be really honest. Set an example of openly and thoughtfully dealing with your mental health. Vet and provide age-appropriate resources for them. Have daily family activities that really do happen every day at roughly the same time and demonstrate that they can trust you with the issues they're struggling with.
posted by Ahniya at 10:49 AM on June 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

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